A Woman Called Dog

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]
August 20, 2023
Matthew 15:21-28

Today’s gospel is genuinely puzzling. How could Jesus act so harshly toward a woman in distress? Why did Jesus have to call her ’a dog’? Where was Jesus’ compassion and mercy?

A bit of historical context may help us. Jesus and His disciples were going toward the district of Tyre and Sidon. These two ancient cities were outside Israel’s territory to the north (presently in Lebanon). The primary purpose of coming to this area was to rest. The constant ministries in Palestine drained the energy, and they needed rest. So, we can imagine Jesus and His followers were exhausted after the various ministries and long journeys, but suddenly, a Canaanite woman came and disturbed their peace.

The typical reaction would be to ask the woman to leave, and this is precisely what the disciples suggested to Jesus. Yet, Jesus did not send her away nor ignore her but instead started a dialogue. We may recognize that Jesus has a particular plan for this woman. But what is His goal for her?

Firstly, Jesus told her that He came for the lost sheep of the house of Israel, meaning His priority would be the Israelites and not the Gentiles. Yet, the woman refused to give up and even kneel before Jesus. Interestingly, the Greek word used is ‘προσκυνέω’ (proskuneo), and this word can be translated as ‘to worship.’ Despite the apparent rejection, she stepped up her determination and even worshiped Jesus. Looking at her reaction, Jesus also came with stronger words, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs (Mt 15:26)” Again, the woman refused to yield. Unexpectedly, she was neither angry nor insulted. Instead, she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table (Mt 15:27).” Because of her great love for her daughter and her trust in Jesus, it did not bother her to be associated to ‘dogs’ and even content with the leftovers. Hearing her answers, Jesus proclaimed that she had great faith and would receive her request.

Yet, a question lingers. Is it truly an insult to call the woman ’a dog’? It is interesting to notice that the Greek word used is ‘κυνάριον’ (kunarion), and it is not just any dog, but a little household dog. Yes, it is a dog, but it is a part of the family and often well-loved. While it is true that the Gentiles were not Jesus’ priority yet, they were very close to His heart. Now, aware of this, ‘kunarion’ can be either an insult or a term of endearment. Fortunately, the woman decided to see this term not as an insult but as an opportunity to get closer to Jesus.

We recognize now that Jesus was making the woman the model of faith in the face of trials and difficulties. Through her, Jesus demonstrated that God’s apparent silence to our request is, in fact, God’s plan for us. Without the test of faith, we will not grow in our relationship with God. Test of faith is part of God’s pedagogy. It is how He trained His beloved ones. He tested Abraham, challenged Moses, and allowed David to endure persecution. It is our privileged to be tested by God.

Valentinus Bayuhadi Ruseno, OP

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